Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 25)

Hello from Bentonville Arkansas, most interesting place in the world (I’m not kidding)

This year I’ve given talks in Tokyo, Osaka, Baku, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, London, Montreal, Palm Springs, and other places.

But I think the coolest place I’ve been to all year is Bentonville, Arkansas.

Yes, Bentonville, Arkansas.

A couple months ago I was invited to be part of a speaker series at a new place called BlakeSt. It’s not a country club: there’s no golf course, though there is an ozone pool (better for you than chlorine) and other athletic facilities, and a truly beautiful building. (Part of it is the home of Betty Blake, who went on to marry Will Rogers. The expansion is completely seamless, the beautifully executed.) It’s a bit more like a London club, but with more programming, and more of an emphasis on wellness and creativity, not drinking so much your valet has to pour you into the carriage.

Alas it’s true

One of the striking things about the place is that while the exterior just looks like a really nice, big house— and in this respect it fits right into the area and really respects its location— the interior is a riot of really, really good art. The staircase leading up to the second floor has a bunch of photographic portraits, including one of the only photographs of Abraham Lincoln, and an amazing picture of Biggie Smalls.

Me and Biggie

Of course, the Walton family is known for its art collecting: the Crystal Bridges Museum is the most prominent example, but there are tons of Walton-sponsored art projects and collections.

It also has a truly spectacular music room, which an incredible JBL Paragon D44000 speaker from the 1960s, photographs of rock icons, and a pretty good collection of vinyl records and a fabulous turntable. (Van Halen really sounds amazing through the system.)

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

Needless to say, when I was prepping for my talk, I took over the music room, selected a bunch of records (Ziggy Stardust, Van Halen 1, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” a couple others), and got down to work.

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

And because of the curious demographics of Bentonville (about which more below), the crowd was really smart and engaged— they came for active rest, really got into the activities, and asked great and thoughtful questions after the talk.

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

So a marvelously-curated venue, an interesting crowd— it all made for a cool event.

Bentonville though, is really fascinating. It’s the home of Walmart— the first Walton’s store has been turned into a museum— and BlakeSt is a project started by one member of the Walton clan. I spent part of my childhood in a small town in Virginia, and I keep thinking that Bentonville is a great example of what a small Southern town can become with good-old fashioned grit, determination, American optimism, and tens of billions of dollars.

Neon and night in Bentonville

In most places, new money just steamrolls the past. Think of most Chinese cities, where historic buildings just get crushed by new money. In Bentonville, in contrast, the money hasn’t destroyed the past; what it’s done is something more like fermentation— a transformation that creates something new in which the original is still visible, but also transformed and preserved.

For example, Bentonville has some also some terrific mural work. But you really have to wait until dark to appreciate the most interesting art installations: the awesome neon art all over downtown.

Neon and night in Bentonville

You’d expect to see neon in a small town; but only a few of them are commercial signs. Many of them are art works by Roadhouse Relics founder Todd Sanders, one of the leading neon Pop artists working today. The shift from business to high art, and art works that reference America’s commercial past— a perfect target for Walmart wealth.

Neon and night in Bentonville

The town is also super-clean, there are nice little parks and playgrounds everywhere, and the Bentonville fire station seems to double as a vintage fire engine museum. So unlike lots of wealth, it’s gone back into public infrastructure, not just private collections.

Neon and night in Bentonville

But it isn’t just the Walton family alone that has created this unique environment. Walmart’s global headquarters are still in Bentonville, and so the town has a lot of executives from companies that are major Walmart suppliers or vendors. As a result, people who formerly lived in New York or LA or Seattle, or come from Europe or Asia, now find themselves in Bentonville. And what’s followed this global expat population? A ton of cool restaurants, coffee places, boutiques— the sort of thing they’re used to— as well as BlakeSt, which aims to be a kind of social hub.

Getting to work at @onyxcoffeelab. Talking tonight about DISTRACTION ADDICTION, REST and SHORTER at @blakest_ar, and taking the crowd through exercises illustrating how they can put the concepts of contemplative computing, deliberate rest, and the 4-day w

As a result, you get these crazy juxtapositions. One morning I had an espresso at Onyx Coffee Lab. Onyx is the only place I’ve ever seen in the US that uses a Budapest-style coffee service (the most civilized in the world, as far as I’m concerned). So that was kinda weird.

But Onyx is across the street from the Flying Fish, a diner-style place serving fried catfish and crawdads. It looks like it’s been there since 1950.

And the weird thing? Neither one feels out of place.

BakeSt, Bentonville, Arkansas

I can’t decide if the result is more like Disneyland’s Main Street USA, or the Truman Show, or the Southern Reach in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation— the juxtaposition of real small-town Americana, world-class modern art, and global elite culture is kind of mind-bending. But given my own experience— growing up in the South, living in Silicon Valley, working all over the world— I really love it.

Of course, the old Waltons store stands across the street from the town square where there’s a Confederate statue, and Bentonville itself is on the Trial of Tears, so the history isn’t all Steamboat Willie and patriotic newsreels. And you could make the case that beautiful modern-yet-traditional Bentonville is polished with the rags of all those small town businesses that Wal Mart has eviscerated over the last several decades— that the lovely town is a monument to an enormous transfer of wealth driven by a rapacious business model and ruthless corporation.

But at the same time, there’s something else about the atmosphere, something that I love to see when I go to the Netherlands or Denmark. The amount of well-designed public space and public art, the wealth without ostentation, the power that doesn’t express itself by living outside the rules— it’s all exceptionally orderly and civic in a way we don’t see quite as clearly as we should every day in America. Very unexpectedly, Bentonville has the feel of a social democracy.


Of course, it’s still Arkansas

No one is really innocent (writes the man who got his start in life with a college scholarship from a tobacco company). The question is what people who are lucky enough to have (or to have inherited) wealth and power do with it.

Neon and night in Bentonville

Anyway, going to Baku was awesome, and I’ll never forget it. Likewise, Tokyo and Seoul are always fascinating. But I look forward to seeing what happens next in Bentonville, and where it goes.

Cal Newport on shorter working hours and the future of knowledge work

Knowledge Workers of the World... Unplug!
Knowledge workers of the world, unplug!

Cal Newport has a piece in the New York Times about Lasse Rheingans, shorter working hours, and the future of work. Newport makes the point that our approach to knowledge work– the mix of always-on digitally-enabled communication, relative lack of filters, and cultural norms that treat overwork as normal and burnout as a necessary risk– really only took hold in the last couple decades; in fact, the term “knowledge work” was only coined in 1959, by Peter Drucker.

Scenes from London
Brunswick Centre, London

The digital tools that have become so ubiquitous in our lives and work really are pretty new. I got my first email address when I was at Stanford in 1991, having gone through nine years of college and grad school without one (and wi thout anyone ever assuming I had one, which is also telling). I built my first course Web page in 1995 or thereabouts, and got my first cellphone around 2000. So while these are woven into our days, to assume that we’ve already figured out how to use them really well, Newport argues, is

both arrogant and ahistoric. It’s the equivalent of striding into an early-20th-century automobile factory, where each car still required a half day’s worth of labor to produce, and boldly proclaiming, “I think we’ve figured this one out!”

If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive — and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining — approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon. No one knows exactly what this future of knowledge work will look like, but I suspect, along with Mr. Rheingans, that among other transformations it will reject the idea that always-on electronic chatter is a good way to efficiently extract value from human minds….

If like many digital knowledge workers, you’re exhausted by endless work and flooded inboxes, the good news is that better and more sustainable ways of producing valuable output with your brain might be coming — if we can find enough visionaries willing to try out “radical” new ideas about how best to get things done.

I think this is right on, and I would build on it and argue that there are also some important cultural innovations that companies shortening their working hours. (I write about this at greater length in SHORTER (US|UK).)

First, they rewire the relationship between professionalism, effort and skill on one hand, and working hours on the other.

London
Signage, London

Today, in many workplaces we treat long hours as a measure of (or a proxy for) ability, commitment, and enthusiasm. Companies that have shortened their working hours, in contrast, believe that someone who can do the same work in 4 hours or 6 hours is a better worker than the person who needs 10; that you should aspire to be the first person rather than the second; and that a willingness to try to become that person signals an interest in your work, an ability to reflect on your processes and practices, and an experimental, growth mindset. Asking people to work shorter hours is a great way to discover who your most dedicated, passionate, competent workers are.

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.
Workmode, Amsterdam

The second change follows from the first. Figuring out how to work fewer hours redirects the passion for your work, the desire to do a good job and to be recognized for it, that leads you to work long hours, and turns it in a healthier and more sustainable direction. Shortening your workday doesn’t lead to overwork and burnout. It’s a way of making careers longer and more sustainable.

Not only does it encourage you to develop a style of working that lets you continue to do great work for more of your career (and let’s face it, there comes a point where you’re no longer physically able to work insane hours without paying a high price), the nature of the challenge is one that’s more open-ended. If you’re now good enough to do in 5 hours what used to take you 8 hours, what do you have to do to get it down to 4 hours? To 3 hours? Trying to work ever-longer hours is a formula for self-destruction; figuring out how you and your organization can work fewer hours is a formula for self-improvement and self-preservation.

Visit to Cockroach Labs

New York City

On Tuesday I went to New York to meet with SHORTER’S American editor and publicity team about the release of the book. (Fortunately, events like the UK general election, in which the Labour Party is advocating for a 4-day workweek (and right-wing think tanks are saying would be terrible), the new Microsoft Japan report, Cal Newport’s New York Times piece, etc. are doing a great job of getting people talking about it!)

I also had a little time to stop in the global headquarters of Cockroach Labs, a startup located on 23rd Street.

Cockroach Labs

They do cloud-based SQL databases, which if you know anything about cloud computing or SQL databases is really cool. (I don’t, but living in Silicon Valley I have friends who are highly technical and think this is an interesting problem.) They also have a 4-day workweek, with the office staying open on Fridays to let people work on their own side projects. This may not sound like a great perk, but for software developers, many of whom are self-taught and are always aware that there are new and interesting technologies that they should learn about, it’s a powerful attractor.

As a result, the average age of company employees is 35, which means that they’re a young company with a surprisingly experienced workforce with the structural support needed to stay up-to-date in their specialties.

For a place on 23rd Street, the office was surprisingly green. The common area has a big wall of moss and ferns, which also serves to absorb sound.

Cockroach Labs

There are other plants throughout the office, which pick up on the green.

Cockroach Labs

This was an especially nice touch: moss on one side of the pillars (since moss only grows on one side of trees).

Cockroach Labs

It’s always great to see these places, because it stimulates questions that you wouldn’t think to ask via Skype, or lets you pick up details that you otherwise wouldn’t notice. For example, I was struck by how quiet the place was: even though it was open office, there was virtually no chatter (except for me). However, they get lunch brought into the kitchen four days a week, and during lunchtime everyone congregates and talks. Being more focused doesn’t make the place less friendly.

Cockroach Labs

There were lots of other interesting details, but I’ll save those for the talks.

While all the humans were very friendly and generous with their time, one of the office dogs was absolutely certain that I was up to no good, and that I needed to be watched carefully.

Cockroach Labs

Fortunately for (fur?) the company, Carl made sure that I wasn’t able to create any trouble.

Cockroach Labs

His friend Remy, in contrast, was a little less suspicious.

Cockroach Labs

Microsoft Japan’s 4-day week

DSCF8656

One of the concerns that some people raise about the 4-day workweek is that while it might work great at little places that are nimble and flexible, it’s not going to work at larger organizations that have a lot of diverse functions. Size isn’t actually the limit people think: as my book SHORTER (US | UK) explains, there are companies in Japan and Korea that have a thousand people or more and have moved to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days In recent years.

This summer, Microsoft Japan successfully trialed a 4-day workweek for its 2300 employees. During the month of August, the company closed on each of the five Fridays, then measured the impact on everything from electricity use and employee happiness, to paper use and employee productivity to the number of meetings the company held.

It should come as no surprise that the results were very positive.

Scenes from Tokyo

There’s some background that isn’t always getting covered in the English-language press about the experiment that is worth noting.

First, the Japanese government and Japanese companies are conducting a lot of experiments now to find improved ways of working, and to cut back on the notorious culture of overwork. Partly this is driven by the aging of the workforce and other social concerns, and partly it’s an effort to promote remote work before the 2020 Olympics, in order to reduce congestion. The Metropolitan Tokyo government, for example, ran “Telework Days 2019” from late July to early September.

Second, the 4-day week challenge also builds on years of earlier Microsoft programs aimed at creating greater flexibility and work-life balance. Microsoft Japan started encouraging remote work in 2012; two years later their “Telecom Day” had become “Telecom Week,” and two years after that, “Working Style Reform Week.” In fact, since 2015, working hours had been reduced 80 hours per year (about 600K hours across the company). Like at Cybozu, they’re trying to broaden flexibility and choice, and accommodate a variety of different family schedules. Microsoft Japan had also been working on shortening meetings, with the aim of resetting the cultural default for a meeting from 60 minutes to 30, and reducing the number of people who attend meetings.

Finally, the trial was designed partly as a test / demonstration of Microsoft Teams, their groupware product. Of course, there’s a long tradition in software companies of using your own products, as both a way to find bugs, and to prove the value of your product.

Scenes from Tokyo

So what was the trial?

In its barest outlines, the trial was a month-long experiment to measure the impact of a four-day workweek in which 1) salaries were not cut, 2) the company made efforts to increase productivity or become more efficient, and 3) people were encouraged to do things outside work. (This being Japan, that kind of official sanction for extracurriculars does send an important signal to many people.)

August had five Fridays this month, so people have five extra days off. Technically these days were called paid leave, so salaries didn’t go down. The company offered subsidized weekend trips and technical courses, and would reimburse up to 100,000 yen spent on courses or for expenses incurred doing volunteer work. Just under 2300 people were involved.

The project was also meant to showcase the potential for Microsoft Teams to make work more efficient and people more productive.

So what happened? The company talked about a three-pronged approach to improving efficiency during the trial, and reported several measures:

Deleting: This category basically includes indicators consuming or spend less time, money, resources, etc. In this category, they report reductions in the number of working days (-25%), pages of paper printed (-57%), and electricity consumption (-23%). The last two are interesting partly because companies generally don’t try hard to measure these (and I confess I didn’t ask about them in interviews I’ve done). The electricity consumption number is especially valuable because our models of the impact of reduced working hours on energy consumption are based on relatively small data-sets so far, and lots of smaller companies that go to 4-day weeks don’t pay their own utility bill (it’s included in the rent), so the more data we have on this, the better.

Improving: This includes improvements in productivity, adoption of more efficient ways of working and collaborating. Labor productivity, measured by sales divided by the number of employees, went up 39.9%, but there were also increases in the adoption of 30-minute meetings (+46%) and remote conferencing (+21%). During the 4-day week, meetings were cut to 15 minutes, and the number of participants capped at five (though in practice the number of meetings increased slightly).

Satisfying: This is a measure of how people feel about the new schedule, and how their work-life balance changed. Overall 94% of employees reported positive experiences, and 92% were satisfied specifically with the 4-day week. (One partial exception was the sales department, which disliked being out of touch with customers on Fridays.) 55% of employees took summer vacations, and 6% took 2+ weeks off. There was a 3x increase in domestic travel subsidies for 1+ week vacations, and a 1.7x increase in sponsored activities.

Regarding Microsoft Teams usage during 4-day week, the highlights were replacement of email with chat (which theoretically is more efficient, though I’m skeptical of this, given the complaints I’ve heard of Slack overload); “time reform” to reduce waste; and support by Microsoft’s AI MyAnalytics, about which no one is saying very much.

It also sounds like Microsoft was working on helping employees build in time for concentrated work or “focus time” into the schedules.

Microsoft Japan says it will implement its own work project “Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Winter” this winter, around theme ”Rest smartly, work in short time, enjoy the challenge.” Which could have been the subtitle of my next book.

To me, what’s significant here is that the experiment shows that a large company can implement (albeit temporarily) a 4-day workweek across a number of offices and functions; have substantial, measurable improvements; and create a prototype that they can continue to refine, and maybe make permanent, in the future.

Rest helped me “manage the balance sheet and navigate my part in the P&L through the” crash “in such a way as we made money.“

Banker and portfolio manager Greg McKenna writes in the Australian edition of Business Insider that “As summer approaches, here’s some good news – rest more, work less and get more done:”

Pang said that some of the world’s most creative people… used the restorative properties of rest to “restore their energy while allowing their muse, the mysterious part of their minds that helps drive the creative process, to keep going”.

I myself – one holiday in Yamba in the early days of the global financial crisis (GFC) – had the time to sit on the beach and on the couch to read David Hackett Fischer’s “Great Wave – Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History”. Sure, it was a history of inflation, but it was also coincidentally a history of the economy and banking crises for 800 years.

It set me up perfectly as treasurer of a small bank to manage the balance sheet and navigate my part in the P&L through the GFC in such a way as we made money.

All simply because I took the time to rest, relax, restore, and read.

A great example of how rest is essential and generative even (or maybe especially) during a crisis.

6 reasons why it’s more productive to work less

A while ago I had a piece in CEO Magazine (which I believe is published in Australia and New Zealand) offering “6 reasons why it’s more productive to work less.” I just saw tonight that the piece, which was behind a firewall when it first came out, is now available for free.

Today, overwork is the new normal. A 2015 survey by EY found that half of all managers worked more than 40 hours a week, and 39% were working more hours than in 2010. We treat rest as uninteresting, unimportant, and even a sign of weakness.

There are many reasons people feel the need to put in long working hours, and cultural norms that encourage overwork, but a small army of neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and engineers have shown that overwork is counterproductive in the long term.

They’ve found that regular breaks, outside hobbies, holidays and sabbaticals, sleep, and even daily naps make you a better worker. Why leaders should pay more attention to rest, and encourage the people who work for them to embrace it, too.

Reading it now, some of it anticipates the issues I talk about in my forthcoming book SHORTER (US | UK). Odd how these ideas run around, only semi-recognized, until they turn into something!

The Drum’s 4-day week

London

The Drum, which covers the marketing industry in Europe, has released a video about the 4-day week at The Lab, a London agency works a 4-day week with a 10-hour day. “‘Thursday is the new Friday’ is a phrase that we’re all familiar with but it’s now becoming a reality for workers at companies that are adopting a four-day week,” Drum CEO Diane Young says.*

It’s a good video, as you’d expect from a media company that follows the marketing world, and it does a good job talking about the benefits and challenges of shifting to a 4-day week. As founder Jonny Tooze explains,

I think one of the key things… is that because we are working slightly less hours, and those hours are compressed, we’ve had no real choice but to to improve process and become more efficient. And as a result, actually, the business is a better business.

Later, he expands on the benefits:

Having a workforce that is super-engaged is fundamental to the success of a business. The 4-day working week does improve engagement in business, there’s no two ways about it. If you’ve got higher engagement you have high productivity, you’ll get better work from people, you get more discretionary effort, people will love the business more, and love being part of it more. That will also increase profitability for the business.

And also it will give you a chance to have some time off as leaders…. In my day off, you know, I do a lot of thinking about the business. One of the things that I found, and one of the things I really hoped to find, was boredom: I’ve actually found periods of boredom back in my life…. The natural human reaction to boredom is to get creative, and it forces you to be creative as a person– and that is where life really is, right, that’s where the essence of life is, when you’re in a creative space. If you’re hectic and busy and you know write on emails and social media and running around doing this job and that job and that job, you are just absolutely not creative whatsoever. When you’re sitting, then you’ve got a shitload of time to do whatever the hell you want, and you get inspired; you can be creative and you can just do some amazing stuff of your life.

And that’s what people are doing right now. You’ll find that in the business… the stuff they’re doing is immense and really fun.

Young also interviews several people at the company about how they use their extra time, and how a 4-day week changes daily work. As one person explains,

It’s longer days because we still work the same amount of hours…. It’s more intense as well, but in a way it’s good because it helps you prioritize really on what you actually need to do. So then you focus on the stuff that you actually really really need to get done within a week, and you don’t have as much time to get sidetracked by email… or slack messages coming in all the time. So you just keep your focus where it needs to be.

*As is so often the case, the automated transcript is garbage; for some reason, Scottish accents remain impervious to artificial intelligence. I spent some time in Glasgow and Edinburgh interviewing companies for my new book, and I use an automated service to create transcripts; it’s almost always awesome, but it chokes once you go north of Hadrian’s wall.

“there is much to be said for Mr Pang’s conclusion that the belief in the power of the 80-hour week is piffle.”

Views from the Eye

Financial Times editor and columnist Pilita Clark has a piece that puts REST against the workaholic pose of the current government:

Brexit, one of the most important events in British postwar history, may have been placed in the hands of men and women who have gone without a summer break and worked for days on end for the best part of two months straight.

This is not brilliant. This is loopy.

There is plenty of evidence showing people who work mad hours are more prone to get ill, drink heavily and make rubbish decisions….

A lot of people think they can get by with just five or six hours of sleep a night with no serious dip in performance. Experts say they are deluded: all but a tiny portion of us need a good seven to nine hours a night.

Worst of all, more hours do not necessarily mean more productivity. A study of workers at a global consultancy firm a few years ago found their bosses could not tell the difference between those who toiled for 80 hours a week and those who simply pretended to. [Ed: This is the great study by Erin Reid.]

This is especially striking to me because Boris Johnson (whose penchant for overwork, or at for least crisis-provoking procrastination, I’ve noted here before) is a huge fan of Winston Churchill, and so must be aware that during the war Churchill worked a lot, but also was very disciplined about getting rest when he needed.

This was driven home to me when I visited the Churchill War Rooms, the underground complex from which he ran the war. Among the meeting rooms, radio rooms, etc., there’s this:

Churchill War Rooms

Churchill had a bed installed in the War Rooms, and every afternoon he took a nap. As I explain in REST, Churchill

regarded his midday naps as essential for maintaining his mental balance, renewing his energy, and reviving his spirits. He had gotten into the habit of napping during World War I, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, and even during the Blitz Churchill would retire to his private room in the War Rooms after lunch, undress, and sleep for an hour or two…. Churchill’s valet, Frank Sawyers, later recalled, “It was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.”

A couple other rooms also had small beds in them so his more senior could catch up on sleep when they needed.

Churchill War Rooms

Now, Churchill spent a lot of time in the bunker, and it was his command center through the worst of the war, when things looked very dicey for Britain and the Allies. Yet, he still made time for rest. I think it’s hard to argue that this didn’t improve his decision-making and leadership, but it also had a subtler impact, I think:

Not only did a nap help Churchill keep up his energy, his sangfroid also inspired his cabinet and officers. Napping during boring parliamentary debates was one thing. Going to sleep literally while bombs were falling signaled Churchill’s confidence in his staff and his belief that the dark days would pass.

Hitler, in contrast, was famous for his erratic sleep habits and reliance on drugs to keep himself going for long periods. If you wanted someone who illustrates how working long hours doesn’t lead to better results, you couldn’t find a better example. (Indeed, the whole Reich turns out to have been really into stimulants: they described meth as “National Socialism in pill form.”)

And it didn’t send a good message to his subordinates. There’s no better way to say “I don’t trust you to do a good job” than  overwork.

One other point: if you read the comments on the piece, they’re basically why I’ve written my next book:

This all sounds good, except if you work for a company that demands that you work 24/7, you will lose your job if you don’t deliver.  I worked for several companies, on salary, that gave you so much work to do that you had to work virtually 7 days a week to get it done….

Japanese and Koreans, who unnecessarily hang around the workplace after 5pm, need to read this.

My partner is Japanese and is angry at that part of Japanese work culture. I used to work for a large corp in Tokyo and during our busy season we’d stay until midnight. However, after 5/6 pm every day I’d notice a dramatic drop in my energy and focus.

Lots of comments point to the structural impediments that constrain people from working more effectively, and working less; and they’re absolutely right that there are hard limits to how much we can do as individuals to reduce our working hours. This is why it’s important, I think, to show how to change the structures, to look at the companies (in the UK, Asia, United States, and elsewhere) that are already moving to 4-day or 30-hour weeks, and to learn from them how to redesign work.

Also, if the FT firewall gets in your way, there’s also this reprint in Channel News Asia.

How conforming to ideology gets money-laundered into expressing personal preference

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.

A friend recently asked me how much things like our embrace of overwork and the M-curve in women’s employment (the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce after having their first child, and reentering after the youngest is in school) reflects personal preference, versus structural limitations.

I want to play around with the idea that maybe it’s all structure, all the way down: that even what we think of as personal preference is just money-laundering of ideology to make us feel like we have more control over our lives.

Why am I thinking about it this way? I just read a Harvard Business Review piece by Alison Wynn and Aliya Hamid Rao about the use of (or non-use) of flexible work programs at management consulting firms.

Management consulting firms offer some of the best workplace flexibility policies, including benefits like paid leaves and sabbaticals. Most employees, however, don’t take advantage of them. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since management consultants continue to experience extremely high levels of work-life conflict, leading to problems such as low satisfaction and high turnover.

They interviewed people at these firms, and found that some of this was about avoiding flexibility stigma– the informal penalties that come from using flex work or part-time programs– but management consultants “also avoided flexibility policies in order to maintain a sense of personal control: they preferred the freedom to manage their work-life balance as they saw fit, rather than opting into a company policy.”

The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts. Our interviewees told us about many family sacrifices, health problems, and suffering relationships due to their busy work schedules. When asked why they didn’t try the flexibility benefits available to them, they dismissed them as unusable.

In other words, they weren’t any more successful at crafting their own policies, but they felt that because work-life balance is a personal thing, and that problem-solving is What Consultants Do, that they should be able to do this, and that their own bespoke solution would be better than the company policy.

As  Vivia Chen comments in The American Lawyer, “What malarkey that they think they’re in control.” I see academics doing something similar. They have a lot of freedom (in theory) to schedule their working lives as they wish, but there’s also enormous pressure to conform to a professional idea of being a high-performing, constantly-publishing thought machine; and so academics end up internalizing this pressure, and converting it into a choice they make, rather than something  that’s imposed on them.

This seems crazy to me, too, and I hope that my next book helps push the needle from “work-life balance is a personal thing for which we are are individually responsible” territory, closer to “work-life balance is a structural issue that requires collective action.”

(The longer version of their study is available here.)

“Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession”

Claire Cain Miller, who writes some great stuff about work and family for the New York Times, has a piece about mothers and medical practice:

Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession, at a time when other professions are growing more greedy about employees’ time. Jobs increasingly require long, inflexible hours, and pay disproportionately more to people who work them. But if one parent is on call at work, someone else has to be on call at home. For most couples, that’s the woman — which is why educated women are being pushed out of work or into lower-paying jobs.

But medicine has changed in ways that offer doctors and other health care workers the option of more control over their hours, depending on the specialty and job they choose, while still practicing at the top of their training and being paid proportionately….

Female doctors are likelier than women with law degrees, business degrees or doctorates to have children. They’re also much less likely to stop working when they do.

Flexible, predictable hours are the key — across occupations — to shrinking gender gaps, according to the body of research by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard. As American employers struggle to adapt to the realities of modern family life and as younger generations of workers demand more balance, medicine offers a road map.

In the case of medicine, the rise of larger practices and hospitals as the main employers of doctors means that hours have become more predictable, there’s less time on call when you’re not at work, and “there are more people who can serve as substitutes and divide night and weekend work.”

Of course, there are still specialties where the hours remain crazy, and those tend to attract more men. Further, women work fewer hours than men on average, though that’s a difference between 50-hour weeks and 60-hour weeks.

As UCLA economist Melanie Wasserman says, “If employers are serious about improving gender diversity in their work force, they might want to think seriously about how they are structuring their jobs.”

Which raises the question: “if doctors have figured out how to work predictable hours and substitute for one another — for things like delivering babies, diagnosing diseases or saving lives — couldn’t other occupations, too?”

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